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In Defense of Play

Lately I have been supersaturated with news, and more specifically, bad news of political and even religious anti-Catholic attacks on truths we hold dear. The feeling is like when, after too much reading, my eyes, grow tired, dry, and unfocused, and simply cannot take in anything more. They close, involuntarily, and in reflex my hand covers and presses them gently with warmth to alleviate the stress they’ve endured. I for one need a break from taking on modern day dragons, and can understand why some people play with dragons instead!

Years ago, in college, I discovered a book that has greatly impressed me: “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture” by Johan Huizinga. This Dutch philosopher defends society’s need for play if it is to stay human, culturally rich, balanced, and sane. Childhood is largely play, during which the little ones learn and adapt to the mores and social norms that will define them as adults. Their minds are teased with curiosity, their fingers become nimble and adept with the use of toys, and generally, they become competent to face an often senseless and cruel life with just the right balance of mirth and enthusiasm to help carry through with responsibilities that grow increasingly burdensome and tedious.

I daresay, adults need time for play as well, because play is a form of freedom that restores order over chaos through insight and imagination. Because play isn’t tied to the ordinary, it brings no profit other than the renewal of minds and hearts. In a word, play makes us more human. Another fascinating book, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” by psychologist Bruno Bettleheim shows how dark stories like those of the Brothers Grimm actually help young minds define who they are by contrasting the good with dark and nasty forces, all of which helps a young mind make sense of the world that isn’t always reasonable. Tales and myths help children--and adults, if they’ve retained any childlike qualities—develop inestimable virtues like wisdom, courage, and compassion in finding and keeping happiness in a safe and sane way. Even prayer can be a form of play. We are taught to “waste time with God” as a good in itself, a respite from work, a kind of Sabbath from which we may take rest to renew ourselves from the burdens of the week.

For these and many more reasons, I enjoy dabbling in poetic word play with sometimes silly themes, hearing about how a devoted father builds an indoor play house for his children, or tapping toes to youtube's Kristen Mosca goofing off with piano ragtime at Disneyland’s Coke Corner. While earthly life is largely defined by struggle and survival, the heavenly life to come beckons us with promise of unending delight in the presence of the good God who creates goodness even as He rewards it.

“How many are your works, O LORD!

In wisdom you have made them all.

The earth is full of your creatures.

Vast and wide is the span of the sea,

with its creeping things past counting,

living things great and small.

The ships are moving there,

and Leviathan you made to play with.

All of these look to you

to give them their food in due season.

You give it, they gather it up;

you open wide your hand, they are well filled.

You hide your face, they are dismayed;

you take away their breath, they die,

returning to the dust from which they came.

You send forth your spirit, and they are created,

and you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the LORD last forever!

May the LORD rejoice in his works!

He looks on the earth and it trembles;

he touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the LORD all my life,

sing psalms to my God while I live.

May my thoughts be pleasing to him.

I will rejoice in the LORD.

Let sinners vanish from the earth,

and the wicked exist no more.

Bless the LORD, O my soul.”

--Psalm 104:24-35

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